The Point: LeBron and A.D. Remain NBA Finals Stars, But Teamwork Covers This Lakers Sky
More than a year ago, when the longest season had not yet begun, on the day before the Lakers held their first practice, vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka fielded a question at Media Day about the team’s expectations for the season.
Pelinka referenced “two of the best players in the universe … that’s a really strong starting point.” While being determined to live in the now, Pelinka allowed the goal of being “the last team standing.”
Sitting next to Pelinka way back on that Sept. 27, 2019 day, Frank Vogel likewise stressed staying in the moment and the team’s ability to achieve the “ultimate prize.” But then Vogel said: “It’s not going to happen if we don’t come together,” as Pelinka nodded in agreement. “How strongly we become connected, become a team-first team, and how quickly we become a team-first team, that will dictate ultimately what success we have.”
Late Tuesday night in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, after moving one victory away from that ultimate prize, Vogel brought the idea up again. Then again.
“We’re a team-first team and we trust all our teammates,” Vogel said. “We trust all five guys on the court to make big plays, and that’s what happened tonight in the fourth.”
Team-first team? The Lakers are more like first-team All-NBA, you might say. They have two of the five first-team All-NBA players on their team, and no one is arguing that or debating the worth for that.
Yes, the Lakers are close to a championship in this COVID-delayed and -extended season because of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, healthy and hearty.
They are also close to a championship because of their team-first mentality, which did come quickly and continues now in their signature style of play.
Ask yourself: How often have you seen the Lakers play in a manner that could be described as selfish? It simply doesn’t fit what they do.
The Lakers’ superstars like to pass the ball and are committed to team defense. The Lakers’ role players like to pass the ball and are committed to team defense. If anything, everyone on the team encourages Davis to take as big a slice of the scoring pie as he can because it usually benefits the team overall.
But there was Davis on Tuesday night, in a league where the stars often operate as designated hitters waiting for their next turn at bat, pouring himself into fielding with nary a second thought. The team needed his defense first, so he was defense-first.
It’s because he was team-first.
Miami’s Jimmy Butler had carried his team to victory in Game 3 with 26 of his 40 points coming in the paint as he sought out smaller Lakers on switches. He couldn’t in Game 4 with Davis denying him, and after we’d all seen someone categorized as a big man continually guard an elite wing scorer in a fashion that just doesn’t happen in this sport, Butler was almost at a loss for words about Davis: “I mean, he’s an incredible defender.”
Aside from a throwaway game in their regular-season finale, the last time Miami scored 96 or fewer points was nine months ago. It was the latest masterful defensive effort by the Lakers in the playoffs, and the variety has been quite nice. Double-team traps on Damian Lillard and James Harden offered gorgeous synchronicity in the rotations for Lakers to cover for each other. Like Davis just did in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, James offered an individual-downsizing defensive display late in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals by repeatedly smothering a smaller player in Denver’s Jamal Murray.
The Lakers had been open to James also guarding Butler down the stretch Tuesday, but Davis allowed them to save that chess move. It also freed James to bring more energy to his offense down the stretch, and the game’s pivotal late buckets were Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s, both products of Miami overloading its defense toward James.
Butler, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson all bunched the lane to protect against James’ freight train in transition while Caldwell-Pope raced to the corner for a three-pointer. Next trip down, with Robinson prioritizing helping Butler on James, Caldwell-Pope faked a recovering Robinson and blew by him for a layup.
“I try not to worry about it if I’m getting shots or not; I know they are going to eventually come,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Just trying to stay within myself.”
Again, no selfishness. Instead, self-control is required. But that’s how Alex Caruso has a .625 effective field-goal percentage in the Finals—better than James’ .595 and behind only Davis’ .652.
“We know what A.D. and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night,” Caruso said. “They are going to get their attention. They are going to get their shots. They are going to get their numbers because they’re two of the best players in the world. Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot.”
Rajon Rondo’s stellar ball-handling and distribution has solidified the offensive teamwork in the playoffs. But the glory of individual offense is flat-out overrated with this group. You can hear it from Kyle Kuzma, who doesn’t get to show all he can do these days on offense but said: “That’s why we’re so good and that’s why we’re in the Finals: We really care about defense.”
This is how a team passionate about being team-first sounds.
“I just want to finish this last game, if it is, to just play my hardest and play my heart out,” Kuzma said. “When I focus on just doing that, then good things happen. For me, I’m not focused on anything else but just doing my role and playing with my heart.”
Not long after Vogel first mentioned that aspiration to become a “team-first team” in his first season coaching the Lakers, James was speaking to reporters after practice on the third day of training camp. Much attention was being paid to how California governor Gavin Newsom had just appeared on James’ talk show The Shop to sign SB 206, known as the Fair Pay to Play Act allowing college athletes to accept compensation.
As proud of the bill and potential social change as he was, two and a half minutes into discussing it, James interrupted and said: “Last question about this.”
“We’re here at the Lakers’ facility, and I don't want to take away from what I’m here [for] now,” he said on Sept. 30, 2019. “This is the season. This is the Lakers.”
The next question to come to James was about Vogel.
“We all want a coach that holds us accountable and puts us in position to win,” James said. “It’s not what LeBron wants with a coach; it’s never just about me. It’s about the whole team—and how we can all be as great as we can be.”
That there is the team-first mentality of Vogel’s dreams, and without a global icon of James’ stature perpetuating it, there’s no chance it would’ve come to this kind of fruition.
Every team at every level of sports builds its truest teamwork when it practices together. As a more experienced team that likes to rest its legs, the Lakers don’t have any rotation players who qualify as Gen Z, born in 1996 or later. So, they even use their screen time to grow their teamwork.
It has been perfect for Vogel, whose first NBA job was as a video coordinator.
“Obviously starting in the film room, you learn how to use that to send messages to change what’s happening on the floor,” Vogel said. “This group, in particular led by LeBron, has had extraordinary attentiveness and carryover in the ability to take what we are teaching in the film room, what we are attempting to change in the film room, and apply it to the court without a lot of practice time and without a lot of reps and drills to make sure that it gets done. They have had a unique ability to do that.”
With consistently one day off between playoff games, being able to adjust quickly and restfully as a unit has been even more important than usual. It has only furthered the deep trust throughout this team.
After the Lakers took their 3-1 NBA Finals lead, these were the first words James spoke in his postgame press conference: “At the end of the day, if you’re on the floor at crunch time, then I believe in you.”
James and Davis have long been viewed as inclusive leaders on their respective teams, and they’ve come together to make sure their Lakers team has become the strongest community—all the more important in this extended isolation of the NBA bubble.
But you can’t really be in isolation if you’re a team-first team.
“There is nobody here but us, so we spend a lot of quality time just talking and being around each other every day,” Dwight Howard said.
By normal rules, the Lakers would’ve held home-court advantage in all four of these playoff series, and studies show the impact from comforts of home and fan support is even more pronounced in the NBA playoffs.
The team comes first, and that has been more than enough for the Lakers.
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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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